Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Sounding Out Quebec’s Clash of SymbolsSounding Out Quebec’s Clash of Symbols

Sounding Out Quebec’s Clash of Symbols

On today’s Fête Nationale, also known as Fête de la St-Jean-Baptiste, Quebecers Maxime Huot Couture and Beryl Wajsman give Rev. Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, their take on province’s one-year-old law controlling how and by whom religious garb can be worn in public.

10 minute read

La version française de cette conversation est disponible ici.

Andrew Bennett: I'd like to get your thoughts on where we've come in this year since the passage of the secular law and how you see things having developed since its passage.

Beryl Wajsman: The demonstrations have died down, and there were a lot of them at the beginning. There have been problems with hiring, particularly in education, but I don't think a lot of the fears that this would grow to be some kind of an anti-religious movement have panned out. It was never the burning question of Quebec society, but it has been a theme since the Quiet Revolution, a revolt against authority, all authority. And since the Church was so tied into the government, particularly during the Duplessis years, there was a reaction against it. 

This law affects how we make our laws in the legislature, where we interpret them in the courts, where we enforce them in the security apparatus and where we form the intellectual character in public schools. It is unlike (former Premier Pauline) Marois’ Charter of Values, which was intended to incite. She wanted 30,000 ethnics marching (in the streets.) She wanted to create that division, and her law affected everybody. This law doesn't do that. I think people are coming around to understanding it.

AB: Maxime, you oppose the law. Where has this past year has brought us?

Maxime Huot Couture: I do agree with Beryl that the political turmoil is over. It's behind us. It may be a bit early to judge the effects of the law. But, as was planned by the government of the CAQ (Coaliton Avenir Québec), I think there's not so much effect actually. We're speaking of a few individuals directly affected, in the last year maybe 50 to 80. Politically speaking, this is nothing.

I think what’s not a good thing is it becoming mixed with the racism issue that many countries are addressing. Those are two different questions. It will not be useful for us to mix secularism and the problem of racism. That can be dangerous. 

AB: The passage of the law a year ago is in some way a high point of the debate that had been underway in the province of Quebec for years, if not decades. Beryl framed it around the role of religion within the public square and how cultural and religious differences should be accommodated within Quebec culture and Quebec society. Is this law the final word? Is there now a sense that we can move forward?

MHC: I'm not sure if it’s the final word since the (Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding) clause will have to be renewed. But I think it provided closure. The Legault government was clear on that. They wanted to close the debate and it was a convenient time to legislate.

AB: Beryl, do you think that there's closure here? 

BW: I think it's a beginning, but I don't think this is just about Quebec. When I speak (outside Quebec), I see people looking at Canada as a whole, and at our whole approach to multiculturalism. Instead of being a compassionate way of applying laws using persuasion rather than coercion and compulsion, it has become a political trough of incredible financial proportions. Across the country, we're having this debate now. There's a whole conversation going on, especially now when things are so difficult, about whether government should get back to (providing) public service, not (engaging in) social engineering. Freedom of religion, of course, but (also) freedom from religion, freedom of multiculturalism, of course, but not funding it constantly.

This is not a new issue. Thomas Darcy McGee, the only politician in Canada to be assassinated, died for it in 1863. He said there is room in this Northern dominion, under one flag and one set of laws, for one great people. There was no possibility for that greatness under that same flag and those same laws if we succumb to 112 particularities. We are now succumbing to a thousand squabbling particularities. And if freedom of religion in the public square means being funded by the public square, then let's get rid of the monotheistic face. Let's look at everybody else. The Hindus have five major gods and over 500 minor gods. Why should their rights be any less than our rights? We've got a big problem with this, and this has to be resolved in the next years because guess what? Money's running out.

AB: Maxime, Beryl makes a claim about the understanding of the common good that this law affirms and, ultimately, what an approach to multiculturalism and pluralism would affirm. What does this law say about pluralism within Quebec? What does it say about the freedom to publicly express one’s faith? Is it contravening a robust understanding of religious freedom?

MHC: I agree with pretty much what Beryl said but one needs to remember Quebec’s cultural and historical specificity. We have two divides here: between the State and religion but also between provincial Quebec politics and federal politics. I don't think the law is really common-good oriented, but many nationalists have identified Bill 21 with common good politics. Why? Because it affirmed social community or cultural community over what is seen as individualistic, multicultural Canadian politics. 

But the real question is how does forbidding religious symbols for most civil servants promote the common good? If the answer is, well, it, it promotes State laicity, okay. But how does State laicity promote the common good? How does it make the life of all citizens better? I think we're facing not so much common good politics as nation building politics. I'm not saying nation building politics is always wrong. I'm saying the moral justification was weak in this case.

AB: Beryl, what do you think of Maxime's point about it being a moral issue, particularly if we apply philosopher Charles Taylor’s distinction between open and closed secularism? 

BW: Taylor always stops one step short because everybody's afraid to touch the third rail. And here's the third rail. The third rail is that religion has been a constant source of friction in the public square. In Quebec, it was part of the nation building process until anti-religious sentiment became part of the liberation of Quebec in the 1960s. Canada was formed on this in the Confederation debates. The two great political leaders of Quebec, George Etienne Cartier and Aimé Dorion, were on either side.  Dorion insisted the Canadian Confederation must protect religion and language. He wanted political parties based on it. Cartier said, famously, “No, I have a new vision for a national political character, not tied to religion, not tied to language, keep that at home.” And this debate has come up now because so much of religion has become not a matter of the right to practice your faith, which no one disputes, but a right to demand support from the State or to demand support from institutions in the multicultural framework. 

AB: So, Maxime, Beryl is making this connection between indirect funding for religious organizations through their tax-exempt status. What about this? Because the core of this debate seems to be how to live life fully as a religious person in the public square.  Are we seeing in Quebec, and generally within Canada, a contraction of the public square for people of faith to not simply go and worship where they wish to worship, but also how they seek to live out that religious self in all aspects of their life?

MHC: We do see a bit of this contraction, but I don't think this is the main point. I don't think you can make a strict parallel between the 1960s and what is happening now. What State laicity is about is authority. Who has the legitimate authority to enact laws?  In the ’60s, the problem was two kinds of authority: a religious authority and a political authority. What laicity is about is saying, “Okay, now we have to govern ourselves according to laws and there are ways to do it without a religious revelation. We're going to separate things so authority is placed in the government, and the Catholic church will just have authority over people’s souls.” But in the case of Bill 21, we're seeing the government wanting to separate the expression of religious values of lay people from government activities: Muslim women, Jewish men, a Sikh man working for the government. They do not hold religious authority. So the State now is exceeding its vocation. It's not neutrality anymore because it's not about authority anymore, but about cultural expression.

BW: But we need to deal with facts here, not with fiction and not with the Jews and the Muslims. There is no law that says a (Jewish) man has to have his head covered. You cover your head if you're praying, making a blessing or studying a Holy book. Nothing in Islam says that women must have their face covered, or their head covered, or anything covered. It's a custom and every Muslim cleric has said the same thing.

Now some clerics want to enforce that custom as law. They quote the notion, which even exists in English common law and French civil law, that a custom can become a law by usage. But it's not religious. There’s nothing in Christianity that says that you have to wear a crucifix outside your clothes. Nothing. You don't need any symbols to understand the Sermon on the Mount. You either carry it inside you or you don't. I would have gone further in Bill 21. I would have said if you want to stand for public office, take off all your gear because you're representing everybody. 

AB: If you are a Sikh member of the Khalsa, you do have to wear a turban. But is this less about enforcing religious tenets and more about people who practice a particular faith being able to practice it in a way they feel is the fullest way of expressing it?

MHC: In fact, I don't think the distinction between being forced to wear religious symbols or doing so from free will is very important. Let me ask why the State should interpret religious texts and traditions of faith communities? Of course, the State has this double status as a tool for common governance, so it must be neutral, but it is also a representation of all of the community. In that role, the State must let people express their values and beliefs that comply with the law. I don't see why a civil servant wearing a hijab or anything else wouldn‘t comply with the law.

So, I defend the religious freedom to wear our symbols in in the public sphere in our jobs as teachers and civil servants. One thing I would forbid is wearing the niqab or the burqa, not only in government bodies where there’s an exchange of governmental services, but in all of the public sphere. There is a political argument and a moral argument against covering one's face because it neglects your responsibility as a citizen. If I don't want to show my face to my fellow citizens, I don't want to assume the responsibility of citizenship. The face is so important for our common citizenship and the common good. So, in this case you have an argument. But in the case of Bill 21, and expressing beliefs under the law, under different codes of conduct, I don't think in our history there are many complaints of civil servants not doing their duties because of their beliefs. 

AB: But how do we draw the distinction between religion in the private sphere and public sphere? 

MHC: I think the divide between private and public is very important here. Our view of religion is pretty weak. We forget there is this dialectic between politics and religion that means you cannot actually separate them. We can separate different authorities, but when a culture grows and evolves it looks up to the sky and the God question becomes available. Politics as a mediation, as a means for the common good, is reminded by religion that there is something more than political issues to life. During the totalitarianism of the 20th century, a lot of religious actors and thinkers began battling the Nazis and Communist Russia from the idea that religion, with its virtues and its discourse on God, reminds us that the political sphere is also about being able to live a good life according to the highest values.

BW: Great. But when you throw that argument out and allow the appropriation of the word “pluralist” to include everybody's diversity, it’s the confusion of language. Pluralism doesn't mean diversity, and there is no strength in diversity. Diversity is our strength is nonsense. We never ceded our passions to the group. Diversity cannot possibly be a strength when you've got so many diverse people speaking so many diverse languages, believing so many diverse things, without, as Pierre Trudeau said, a bridge into pluralism.

Liberalism is the acceptance of diversity, not the bending over to it, not the pandering to it. And we tell every immigrant this, or we should, that we believe in freedom of expression. We believe in freedom of assembly. We believe in equality before the law. But pluralism doesn't mean, “Oh, by the way, in all these equalities? Well, we're going to make 1,972 exceptions.” What you cannot do is demand that everybody be funded, subsidized, and bowed down to for every little problem, every small thing. 

AB: One last point here, Maxime, are you saying that a State that is truly confident in and of itself, and the role it plays in professing pluralism, should be big enough to accept the presence of openly religious people wearing religious garb and so forth? And that actually strengthens the State rather than weakens it, is that where you're going?

MHC: Yes. 

BW: Except that it's all the accommodations that Maxime talked about. I love the way you phrased the question, Andrew. It's what has weakened the State. People want gifts. They want goodies. They want Christmas every day.

Topics: Religious Freedom

Andrew P.W. Bennett

Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett is Program Director, Faith Communities at Cardus.

Beryl Wajsman

Beryl Wajsman is editor-in-chief of The Suburban Newspaper Group and founder and president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal.

Maxime Huot Couture

Husband and father, Maxime Huot Couture works as a policy advisor in the Government of Quebec. He is a regular collaborator with Le Verbe Magazine and his writings have appeared in various publications. He lives in Quebec City with his family.

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